Today mom’s in the salon chair. It’s her reflection in the massive mirror. The chair, the mirror, artifacts from the beauty salon on Park Street. Studio One Unisex Hairstyling is now Chatham Beach Tanning. But when she sold the salon in ‘85, she brought a little piece of it with her and set up this hairdressing station in the basement. Today it’s her turn to be the customer.
How much?, I ask. She pinches a bit of hair from the right and pulls it down a bit past her shoulder. An inch or so. Just so it sits on my shoulders, but still long enough so I can put it in a ponytail. I sigh deep. I need to get it right. If I don’t, I can’t put it back. After years of critiquing coiffed reflections, she’d spot a mistake in a glance; know I was holding the scissors at the wrong angle.
I lay the instruments out like a dentist on the wheeled tray by my side. Wide-toothed comb, fine-toothed rattail comb with the long tail, spray bottle, cup of warm water, plastic hair clips, scissors. I drop the clips into the pocket of my smock, her smock, take a deep breath, grab the large comb and run it slowly through the gray and white waves. It used to be straight. Before the cancer. Through the years, she experimented with all different kinds of hairstyles. She’d perm it, add blonde highlights, dye the gray.Then when she lost it all during chemo, she said if it ever grew back, she’d let it go natural. It grew in gray and curly. That’s how she’s left it, and it’s gorgeous.
I drop the comb and use my fingers instead. I like the feel of Mom’s soft hair in my hands. I run the end of the rattail comb across the first layer of hair closest to her neck, sweeping the rest up, giving it a twist, and securing it on the top of her head with a clip. She bends her head forward, resting her chin on her chest. I dip the comb into the cup of warm water and run it through the first layer, smoothing it down dark. I reach for the scissors on the tray and slide my thumb and forefinger in, resting my middle finger on the plastic apostrophe, for control. I’m surprised they fit. But I shouldn’t be. Our hands are the same size.
In the same hand, which is surprisingly not trembling, I grab the rattail again and gently comb the thin layer of hair down flush against her neck. The hair is darker here on the bottom. Younger-looking. But shorter. And thinner. I shift my weight from one foot to the other, feigning calm, competence. Confidence I don’t yet have.
How can Mom be so nonchalant? She went to school for this. Beauty Academy right out of high school. I went to college. Got a degree in education. A lot of good that does me now with mom in the hydraulic chair in her basement wanting me to give her a trim. How on earth am I supposed to know what I’m doing?
The only training I received was when I was growing up, I’d sit on the basement stairs. The basement was finished when we moved into the house when I was seven. It had this funky carpeting that had a repeating pattern of pictures of different liquor bottles on it in red, orange, green. They were labelled. Whiskey, bourbon, vermouth. Which was weird because other than Dad having an occasional Bud, my parents didn’t drink. The stairs were covered in this carpet, too. They led from the upstairs hallway down to the dark panelled basement. I’d sit on the fifth step up where I wasn’t in the way but still had a good vantage point, and watch through the wooden railing painted red to match the carpet and running parallel to the handrail, as Mom styled someone's hair. They’d sit in the chair, Mom would sweep the cape around in front of them, secure the velcro at the nape of the neck, and the conversation would begin. Mom would cut, curl, dye as she listened to them tell her about their week. It was a one-act play with two characters and me as the sole audience. It was art. Mom saw the finished product before she even began, and she trimmed and curled until she achieved the end she’d envisioned. I took it all in. Not so much the gossip but her technique, precision, care. She wasn’t just helping a friend return to the style or color they had six weeks ago, she was sharing her time. I’m willing to give Mom my time, but still feel ill-qualified to do this job.
I comb the same layer over and over. Raise it to see if it will work in a ponytail. Comb it back down. How about here? I ask, pressing my finger flat and running it back and forth against her neck. That’s good, she says. Watching the motion of my hands I barely recognize them as my own. The plastic coating of the scissor rings smooth on my skin, I make the first cut.
Once it’s done, the rest comes easier, almost mechanical. The staccato wi-ki, wi-ki, wi-ki of the scissors. Crunching as they cut and then sigh relief as they open again. Hands making crooked paths straight. Rattail in and across. Line up the next layer with the previous one, hold it taut between middle finger and forefinger like I’d seen her do so many times before, cut the same as the previous layer. Channeling Mom while she’s still in the room.
We relax into the conversation. She gets there before I do. Cutting your hair for the first time was difficult for me. I hated cutting off your banana curls. I was probably five. I’m not sure whose idea it was that I get that haircut. Obviously, she was the one who was traumatized. I don’t remember that either. Banana curls and feathered bangs were an artifact of the 70s. As I got older, the curls got smaller. In high school in the 80s, I went through the permanent wave phase. Mom gave me perms at home. She’d wash my hair in the deep kitchen sink upstairs, and then we’d go downstairs to the home salon.
Do we ever stop taking from our parents? I don’t remember much about Mom having cancer. She’s a survivor, and it was years ago. I do remember how she told me. We were sitting in the car at the bottom of my driveway. I was complaining about some trivial thing about my sister. I can’t recall now what it was, but I was ranting and wouldn’t let it go. Mom interrupted me with an uncharacteristically stern voice. I have cancer. That shut me up. I wasn’t going to tell you yet, but you were complaining about your sister and. . .And something. I was being petty, unrelenting. Whatever she said, she was right.
I’d like to say I grew up that day. Became the adult. Stopped being so petty and selfish. But I didn’t. I’m still taking. I’m still calling Mom and expecting her attention. Sometimes I’ll call and ask how she is. Fine, she’ll say. Then I launch into the details of my day. I tell her I need her to be fine. I know I’m blessed she and Dad are still well and active in their seventies. I need them to be okay because part of me still needs to be a child.
She looks so small now in the chair. How can this be? Did she shrink over time from giving so much of herself to others? Grammy also looked small to me. Did Mom see her that way? People call menopause the change of life, but maybe the real change of life is when your mom starts to look small.
The other day, I was cranky. I called her. Not to cheer me up, and I wasn’t expecting or needing her to be having a good day. I just needed to hear her voice, the familiarity of it. I needed her to listen to the minutiae of my day, like she always does. She listens to every word. Then when it’s her turn to talk, I find my mind drifting. After a while, I don’t hear the words, I simply ride their cadence. The hills and valleys and rills of her voice. The voice familiar to me from the womb fifty years ago. The stream, the thread, the voice in my head. The voice I sometimes hear embedded in my own when I play back a recording of myself or hear the mom-ism that just falls out of my mouth and makes me laugh.
The scissors quiet, I return them to the tray. I look over at the empty stairs. Then back to Mom’s reflection in the giant mirror, me towering behind her. Someday she may need more from me. For now, we have this. She turns her head from side to side and says, Oh, that’s so much better. Thank you. I didn’t do much. Just what she asked.
-- Amy Nicholson writes by a waterfall in Connecticut where she lives with her family and a dog named Maggie. She has words at Clerestory, Ruminate Reader’s Notes, Woods Reader, Today’s American Catholic, etc. More musings at amynicholson14.wordpress.com.